Reading Austen in Mexico

One glance at a book and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for 1,000 years. To read is to voyage through time.
–Carl Sagan

He knew only that his child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
–Cormac McCarthy/The Road

On my zillionth re-read of Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” while I was sick last month, it occurred to me that Austen has been dead for nearly 200 years, and her words still have as much power, or even more , as they did in the 19th century when she first wrote them. It’s extraordinary to me that words can have that sort of staying power. Each time I read the stories of Anne Elliot, Elizabeth Bennett or Elinor Dashwood I am struck by how current they still are. The prose is so simple, and their stories are small ones, but they are somehow still very modern to me.

Austen’s genius was in her scale. She didn’t write about a cast of thousands. There is very little action. People have tea. They walk around the garden. They talk in a very proscribed way about topics that have very little to do with their true thoughts. They have good manners. People have roles that they are expected to fill, and for the most part they do. It’s a life that would not suit me in the least, but reading about it is very comforting not so much because of how different we are now, but because of how similar our most important interests still are. Family, friends and love are still at the center of most of our lives. We have more options as women, without a doubt, but we still make sure the household runs smoothly. We’re still the keepers of the family for the most part. Things change, but we’re still fundamentally the same.

Words come from the past to let us know that while many aspects of our lives change, people are still people.

With Austen, it’s reassuring.
With Cormac McCarthy, it’s often horrifying. In 200 years, I don’t think anyone will be comforted by “The Road,” but the words will still hold their power. He’s the opposite of Austen in nearly every way but simplicity of prose.

Where Austen prized the gentle, the civil, and the small canvas of the drawing room, McCarthy writes about the violent, wild and his canvas is the wide space of the US and Mexico. He writes of a hard, brutal world in which there is very little kindness. Same words, more or less, totally different power. There are no ladies and gentlemen in McCarthy’s world, if there were they would not survive for long.

I like to think that the world is a kinder place than McCarthy’s world. Mine is. I know that many, maybe most, other people live in other worlds though. Harsher worlds. Violent worlds. The world I live in has more in common with Austen than McCarthy. The news and my eyes tell me that is not the case for everyone.

I spent a lot of my valuable vacation reading minutes with Austen. I had a lot of new books queued up, but somehow didn’t feel like reading any of them. The Jack Handey book wasn’t funny. Other things, were too serious. My old friends Emma Woodhouse, Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennett were just what I needed.

They never got the chance to be over-served micheladas in a Cabo all-inclusive.
On the other hand, I never got to meet Mr. Knightley, Edward Ferrars or Mr. Darcy.
I wonder which life I’d choose if I could?

OK, no I don’t. I don’t wonder at all.
I would not trade my very comfortable life as an educated modern Western woman for…well…anything.

I have many faults, but recognizing how good my life is is most definitely not one of them.

I say it a lot, and I’ll say it yet again: I am a very lucky woman.